The ability to go delving back through some classic horror DVDs recently has given me a new appreciation of the genre. And while many are heralding Japan as the new home of horror, what my DVD archeology has taught me thus far, is that Japan is making a lot of the same mistakes that the burgeoning ‘modern’ horror producers were making during the 70’s and 80’s. The 1974 zombie(ish) horror flick DEATHDREAM is no exception to these mistakes, however despite it’s low budget, frustratingly obvious plot holes and omissions of simple logic, this film deserves far more recognition than it currently enjoys.
Probably the greatest culprit for the lack of awareness — and therefore, lack of appreciation — of Deathdream, is the fact that it’s had a myriad of different titles over the years: Dead of Night, Night Walk, The Veteran, Whispers, and The Night Andy Came Home. Unfortunately none of these titles, including Deathdream, really suit the film.
Christine Brooks’ (Lynn Carlin) devotion to her son Andy (Richard Backus) borders on… well, weird. While he’s off fighting in Vietnam she spends her time looking after her husband Charles (John Marley), their daughter Cathy (Anya Ormsby) and the family dog, Butch… oh, and praying TO Andy. There’s a suggestion that Christine’s fanatical worship of her son somehow plays a part in the events which transpire throughout the course of the film. But there are other elements which seem to contradict this idea.
On the same night that the Brooks family receives word that their son has been killed in battle, Andy appears at his family home. However the family’s adulation over their son’s return is short lived, as it becomes more and more obvious that Andy isn’t quite the same loving son and brother that he once was.
There’s no doubt that Deathdream is clearly dated, but it holds up extremely well despite being left behind by the progress that film-making has made during the almost thirty years since this was shot. It’s far more than a simple horror movie too — as most of the best ones are — however, for me, the notion that this film carries an anti-Vietnam message is somewhat lost in the unexplained and somewhat incomprehensible behaviour of whatever it is that Andy has become. I’m comfortable with the idea of a horror movie leaving me with questions, but Deathdream does little to clear up the dubiousness of the plot. So, instead of being left with a resonant, thought-provoking message, I found myself coming away from this movie with a simple “WTF?”… Which is exactly where I’m left by most Japanese horror movies, hence my earlier connection.
Anything wrong with this film is easily forgivable though, when you take into account the period in which it was made, and the fact that a lot of the things that are wrong with Deathdream, are still wrong in a lot of modern horror. In the end, this is an extremely well made and suspenseful movie. Director Bob Clark deserves much of the credit for the successful execution of this film, which relies far more on building a mood than it does on shlock and gore. In it’s simplest form, stripping away any message which may or may not have been implanted in this film, Deathdream is an entertaining take on the classic ‘Monkey’s Paw’ (Be careful what you wish for) concept.
Where the 2004 Blue Underground DVD release of Deathdream really won me over though, was in the extras. The release comes with a couple of extended scenes, trailer, posters and stills gallery… but the real gold mine comes in the form of a interview / documentary with horror legend Tom Savini and audio commentary tracks with Bob Clark and writer (and make-up artist) Alan Ormsby. Ormsby in particular is extremely giving during his commentary, sharing stories about the people involved in the production of Deathdream and some other classic horror titles. The track eventually turns from commentary host, David Gregory, simply interviewing Ormsby into a conversation between two informed horror fans. Ormsby’s self-effacing humour certainly offsets Bob Clark’s almost stand-offish nature, but both tracks (and the Savini interview) are well worth picking up this DVD for.